The Riddle of the Cheshire Cat

Are you your body, your consciousness, an immaterial soul, a program running on a protein computer, a person before the law, a product of biological and social evolution? Those are but some of the concepts of self that come to mind in response to the Cheshire Cat’s famous question: Who are you?

A possessive pronoun designates the body: my body, as though it is a thing separate from the presence I feel “myself” to be, and belonging to it. This presence is no object, but a subject. But let us back up, however, since the thing one takes a body to be is already a learned notion. Even before birth, what we actually begin with is sensation. When the eyes open, we are flooded with visual appearances coordinated with other sensations in the body and limbs. We feel the body and the sense of will through which we learn to move its parts. And we see it as we see other objects in space. We learned that we can move other things by moving this one, from which we can never get away. (According to Piaget, the concept of causality, as an impersonal force acting between distant objects, derives from the early experience of making our own limbs move.) We acquire knowledge about the body as a physical entity among other objects—constituted of organs, cells, molecules, etc. It becomes an object of disinterested study as well as the highly interested source of all information about the world, to which one is connected like no other object. Since it is “me” who gains and uses this information, the body seems like my personal instrument, through which “I” interface with the world.

When you ask people where they feel themselves to be located in the body, most reply that it is behind the eyes or mouth. (Other answers might include in the chest or solar plexus, the groin, the limbs, etc.) While earlier civilizations identified the soul with the breath and lungs, or the vital principle with blood, we moderns identify our psychological life with the brain and now, perhaps, with genes. We have also inherited the mechanist metaphor through which to view the body—and the rest of the world—as a machine. Descartes proposed that the human body (like the animal body) is effectively a  machine, while the human person (the locus of consciousness) is immaterial, not part of the machine but its operator.

Though that view strongly reflects the intuitive sense of being separate from the body, it is disputed by modern science, which insists that consciousness and the self are brain functions. However, science has hamstrung itself by its own objective focus, in such a way that it has not succeeded to explain consciousness, but only to identify how it correlates with physiological and brain states. (As they say, correlation does not imply causation.) Indeed, describing how objects interact with other objects does not seem appropriate to explain consciousness, which always involves a subject as well as objects that are interacting. This relation of subject to object is enshrined in many languages as parts of speech.

The sense that “I” am not another object in the world (though my body is) led easily (though not logically) to the notion of the soul or subtle body. Theologically, the soul is a quasi-material thing (think of ectoplasm and ghosts), an awkward mix of subject and object. It explains nothing, while reassuring one of having some substantial basis that could survive death. Smart as he was, even Descartes was caught in that fallacy. (I suspect that he knew better—since Aristotle had known better long before—but had to pay lip service to traditional theology in order to evade the Inquisition.) Nowadays, scientists hold that the self dies with the brain; but they still cannot explain in traditional scientific terms how a living meat machine can produce consciousness and the sense of being a self.

Enter the computer metaphor. Just as the digital computer is the most subtle, complex, and general machine—capable of simulating any other machine—so the brain is the most plastic organ in the body, capable of simulating the external world. A great deal of the mechanics of cognition has been explained by writing programs that can accomplish with computation the perceptual tasks that the brain accomplishes naturally. However, it is cognitive behavior that is simulated and explained, not the subjective experience of being a conscious self. That challenge is now usually known as the hard problem of consciousness, to distinguish it from the “easier” problems of explaining behavior causally. However, I don’t believe that even the behavior of organisms, much less consciousness, can be explained strictly in the sort of terms that apply in physics and chemistry to inanimate matter.

The most helpful contemporary metaphor to explain consciousness, experience, and the nature of the self is virtual reality. This extends the computational metaphor, since VR runs on computers. What we know as consciousness or phenomenal experience is a VR program the brain runs to simulate the external world. What you know as your self is your bodily representative in that VR world, your avatar. How you see your virtual body, like how you see the virtual world, is guided by your real body’s real interactions in the real world. You have evolved to see the world a particular way in order survive—that is, to represent it a particular way in your VR. That representation—that seeing—is your VR world. Unlike actual VR (where you put on and take off goggles), you cannot quit the VR program run by the brain in order to see the world as it “really” is.

Your virtual self (that is, you!) is as much a body function as the brain that runs the VR program. It exists to serve the needs of the body, although it has a limited autonomy that allows it to do things that are not in the body’s interests. I think of this agent as the CEO of a corporation (corporation literally means body—in this case, a corporation of share-holding cells). In its executive role, the CEO mostly doesn’t interfere with the running of the corporate machine. Consciousness monitors the external and internal environments, and their relationship, troubleshooting in situations when automatic programming can’t adequately do the job. But consciousness isn’t just on or off. As you’ve no doubt noticed, there are degrees and domains of attention. Following a familiar route, one can drive a car more or less “automatically,” only becoming fully attentive when required to make some decision in novel circumstances. Meanwhile, the CEO is free to daydream or play golf.

We are considered agents responsible before the law. Unlike machines, we are considered to have free will—that is, to be the originators of our actions. Causal explanation, appropriate to material systems, does not usually get us off the hook. In principle, the buck stops with a free agent. This runs counter to the modern understanding of the body as a causal system whose actions can be determined by internal and external factors. Perhaps one day machines will have as much free will as we do, will be considered legal persons, and will be accountable to the law. At that point, they will probably no longer be considered machines and will have no more license than human beings to have their behavior excused on causal grounds.

Yet, nature overall is considered a causal system, including the whole biosphere. From that point of view, as products of evolution, we are as determined in our nature as other creatures. The difference is that we are aware of this and have developed some capacity to override our programming, change it, or compensate for it. It may well be that this capacity itself is an evolutionary product that has served our survival. On the one hand, though we still may not like it, we have by now largely outgrown the notion that we stand outside the natural order. On the other, the whole of human culture is a valiant attempt to do so.

Certainly, there are aspects of being natural creatures that remain limiting, when not utterly horrifying. For example, we die; and we live by killing other creatures. We now know that even our integrity as physical organisms is illusory. It is baffling enough to think that that this body is a complex configuration of trillions of cells that work together for mutual benefit under the umbrella of a common DNA. Yet, those cells are outnumbered ten to one by a menagerie of parasites and freeloaders that share the same skin but not that DNA. If it was hard before to identify with one’s liver—or, for that matter, one’s brain—it is all the harder now to identify with this bag of “foreign” creatures. (The cells now “officially” comprising the body might even once have been parasites that eventually joined the cause.) Now one must defer to genes that run the show—and not only “my” genes but those of countless parasites. The self barely hangs on as a legal and social entity, and is no longer credible as a spiritual entity. On the other hand, even the atoms of the body are hardly material in the traditional sense, but mostly empty space or some nebulous field. Who you are, then, is not so easy to answer when the self evaporates, leaving only a Cheshire grin. Perhaps the answer  depends on who wants to know and why.